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Ajin: Demi-Human
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by Jay Seaver

"Over-the-top action made to go down easy."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Ajin: Demi-Human" is a better-than-usual attempt to cram a lot of comic book into a two-hour movie; you can see the filmmakers making compromises between character depth and world-building, action and explanation. They generally do okay; there's a fair chunk to absorb but it moves fast and puts the characters in position for sometimes gruesomely creative action.

In the film's world, an "Ajin" or "Demi-Human" is a sort of mutant who doesn't stay dead; kill them and they "reset" a minute later, recovering from any injury, illness, or mayhem. 46 are known to exist in the world, and Kei Nagai (Takeru Satoh) is one of them, having stood back up after being hit by a bus. The bad news: Japan's Ajin bureau is less interested in protecting them than studying them and using them as human guinea pigs. The good news: Japan's other two known Ajin, Koji Tanaka (Yu Shirota) and Sato (Go Ayano), have come to rescue him. Or, wait, maybe it's bad news: Having suffered the same torture at the hands of Yu Tozaki (Tetsuji Tamayama) over years rather than months, they don't much care what humans they kill, and Nagai has yet to become that hardened.

There's more to the mythology than that but less enumerated than you might expect; the filmmakers catch the audience up with some opening text and then get to the good stuff quickly. It's impressively efficient without slowing the movie down much, or bogging it down with too much information that really doesn't matter to folks who have bought a ticket to see people who can't be killed for very long fight. In some cases, that's necessity; there is a fair amount of manga to cram into the movie, and that means getting it down to the essentials, although by the same token that often means jumping from one situation to another quickly. There are characters who are brought in and out with little time to be fleshed out, and the finale has characters becoming uneasy allies without really digging into the unease. It's mentioned, but then there's violence to do.

And it's some big, crazy violence, well-choreographed and with spiffy-looking CGI for the Ajins' "ghosts". The filmmakers manage the high body count well, giving the heroes just enough horror and the villains enough glee to make sure the film doesn't feel completely callous, with a propulsive electronic score by Yugo Kanno pushing things along. It's probably worth a trigger warning for some - where most movies like this tend to save using suicide and dismemberment as something done once with great reluctance near the climax, the "reset" is a tactic most of the Ajin have embraced before the film has started, and I suspect that even now an American remake would change one set piece to remind the audience less of 9/11. If you're okay with that, it's impressive as heightened action, not just relying on brute force but some fine stunt work (worth noting - former idol Rina Kawaei is often the most impressive when the fights become hand-to-hand).

Making those action scenes work means that many of the characters must be capable of that sort of violence, something that's referenced in the film as perhaps being part and parcel of being Ajin, although it's not something that the film digs deep into, especially since Sato, Tanaka, and Nagai have every reason to lash out at humanity. It makes some of the performances less interesting than they might be: Go Ayano makes an fine motivated villain as Sato, detached and gleeful in his lashing out, but Takeru Satoh's Kei Nagai doesn't pop in quite the same way, while Yu Shirota, Tetsuji Tamayama, and the folks playing the other Ajin who join Sato's group are just kind of there because the story needs manpower. Both Rina Kawaei nor Minami Hamabe (as Nagai's ailing sister Eriko) feel like they're playing characters who should be more important, but the film doesn't have room for them (aside from it not being a good look that only one out of the nine Ajai introduced is a woman).

A lot of this is the kind of compromise that is made in order to get this sort of manga on-screen in a fairly faithful fashion, especially if the live-action spectacle is meant as a supplement to the popular print and animated versions as opposed to standing entirely on its own. It's still done well enough that someone seeing this first can jump right in and enjoy the big-time action without finding it to be too much.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32129&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/28/18 10:46:16
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 SXSW Film Festival For more in the 2018 SXSW Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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